The Celtics are not without talent, but until their G.M. gets serious aboutacquiring an experienced hand or two, they won't win
UNDER DANNYAINGE'S leadership the Celtics have become laughingstocks. Since he took overas executive director of basketball operations in 2003, inheriting a contenderthat won 93 games and three playoff series over two seasons, Boston has gone127--174 (.422); this year the team has the worst record in the league (13--42through Sunday) and recently endured a franchise-record 18-game losing streak.The Celtics have hit rock bottom because Ainge is unwilling—or unable—toacquire veteran players who would help win games today.
Does that makeAinge the equivalent of the Detroit Lions' Matt Millen? Hardly. For one thing,Ainge has drafted exceedingly well: All nine of his picks over the last threeyears—none in the lottery—have turned into legitimate pros, including startersAl Jefferson (No. 15 in 2004), Delonte West (No. 24 in '04) and Ryan Gomes (No.50 in '05).
The problem:Ainge has grown far too dependent on the draft. Boston has a half-dozen playerswho could be in college this year, but Ainge has made a mess of acquiringproductive veterans to balance out the roster. In 2003 he recklessly sentAll-Star forward Antoine Walker—when Walker's value had bottomed out—to theMavericks in a deal for Raef LaFrentz, an overpaid big man with a bum knee.Last June, Ainge finally unloaded LaFrentz's contract in a draft-day blunderthat netted third-string point guard Sebastian Telfair, while the Trail Blazersended up with Rookie of the Year favorite Brandon Roy. And let's not forgetRicky Davis.
Majority ownerWyc Grousbeck refuses to hold Ainge accountable for making the team younger ineach of the past three years. "Every team has 'tradeable' players and'untradeable' players," Grousbeck says, in a specious attempt atrationalizing Ainge's big blind spot. "Why should we want somebody's'tradeable' players?"
In truth, theleague is full of players labeled as underperformers who have becomeproductive, and usually inexpensive, contributors elsewhere: Pistons guardChauncey Billups, Mavericks center DeSagana Diop and Heat forward Jason Kaponoare onetime flops who have prospered in new environments. Boston overlooksthese players because, unlike most franchises, the Celtics don't have anyone intheir front office who makes a priority of assessing current NBA talent. Propersonnel scouts travel the league in search of bargain veterans and spendhundreds of thankless hours determining whether young talents who have fizzledin one situation could thrive in another.
The Celtics'failure to outsmart their rivals prevents them from acquiring buried treasurelike guard Dennis Johnson, who died last week of a heart attack at age 52. In1983 Red Auerbach was able to move center Rick Robey to the Suns for Johnson,who was available because of his reputation as a locker room cancer—a rep sogrossly wrong that Ainge would jokingly refer to his new Boston teammate asChemo. Johnson was one of those "tradeable" players, and he helped theCeltics win their last two titles.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Get a new column from Ian Thomsen four times a week.
On the state of the Eastern Conference after Heat starDwyane Wade suffered a dislocated left shoulder last week:
"Detroit is on top, now that Flip Saunders can run the offense throughChris Webber, who gives them a second low-post scorer with Rasheed Wallace,which they didn't have last year. In second place I'd put Washington andChicago: Though the Wizards are having the better year, they have no insidepresence and play no defense, while the Bulls' defense is going to make themhard to beat in a playoff series. I can't see it happening for Cleveland:LeBron James (above) can turn it on for a couple of games, but I don't see himcarrying that team through series after series. What the Cavs need more thananything is a veteran leader to tell James to quit taking bad shots and to postthe damn ball up."
Ainge's picks (from left: Kendrick Perkins, Jefferson, Gomes and Rajon Rondo)need veteran guidance.